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I have a technical peer at a customer who I work with several times a week. I handle high-level support requests from her. Typically both of our PMs are CC'd so they can be in the loop as we address issues.

Frequently those PMs will hijack a technical support email thread with unrelated questions.

How can I politely discourage this behaviour? It makes it hard for the PMs to get clear answers and it makes it hard for me to continue providing technical support.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think having to copy them on every email is a bigger problem (See last paragraph for possible solution.). But if they must be included, be prepared to break the chain. Reply to the email but change the subject to something more appropriate and remove any included email replies except the offending post by the PM. Indicate it makes it easier to follow and doesn't interfere with the original topic. We all are guilty of using reply to all out of convenience.

Consider something other than email for working with clients. Possibly a bug/issue tracking site or CRM. Over time, your email is less likely to be available to others, so instead of copying the 'current' people, there is a better place to archive this discussion. Maybe the tracking system can send an automated email letting them know something has been posted and they need to be in the loop. The return address would be one where they can't reply.

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I ultimately accepted this answer because of its suggestion to move to CRM/bug tracking. This project is well past the initial hand-holding stages and its time to do it right. The first half of the answer is also more realistic in my case, the individual and corporate personalities involved simply won't respond to "unimportant" requests I will have to take action and open new threads. –  Freiheit Nov 15 '12 at 14:49

Just write a polite (private) email to the PM(s) in question explaining the issue like you did here. IMO the tone of your post is neutral and nonoffensive, it is not blaming anyone personally, just pointing out the problems caused by the specific behaviour, and the way to avoid them. The only exception to me is the word "hijack", which I would replace with a more neutral expression.

A general message template for nonviolent communication could look like: "When you do ..., it causes problems to ... due to ... . You could avoid negative effects by doing ... instead."

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I agree except about the private part. I would cc the PM's manager and my manager. And I would send the same email every time the PM tried to hijack an email thread –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Nov 14 '12 at 16:16
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@Chad You can do that, but be aware that CCing a manager is an escalation, and likely to be perceived as aggressive. There was a question about it on this forum. If you want to be aggressive you can, but be aware of the negative consequences. –  DJClayworth Nov 14 '12 at 17:54
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@Chad Perceived as aggressive by the PM. As I said, if you want to go this way and set up an adversarial relationship with this PM, that's your right. But be prepared for the consequences. –  DJClayworth Nov 14 '12 at 18:07
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@DJClayworth, maybe I've been spoilt, but I like my manager having my back with regards to outside parties. I don't know what the PM is going to do with my mail after I've sent it without keeping my boss in the loop. So my manager needs to know from the get-go in case it hits the fan in future. I detest "Why wasn't I made aware of this" discussions. Just hate em. –  kolossus Nov 15 '12 at 4:42
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@kolossus, if the PM responds to your first mail by improving his habits, the problem is solved and there was absolutely no reason to involve your manager (thus embarrassing the PM in front of others). OTOH if (s)he keeps hijacking threads, it is reasonable to involve your and/or his boss in the second email. –  Péter Török Nov 15 '12 at 8:14

Couple thoughts:

1 - Demonstrate the behavior you want - when a thread gets hijacked, reclaim it - start a separate thread with a clear subject line. Include the question from the PM and your response. Open the mail with an intro saying something non-accusatory, saying you started this separate thread as this is a separate issue, and you need to keep the first thread clear so you can continue with the original problem. Politely ask that everyone stay on the new thread for the issue.

2 - Recognize variance in formality - It sounds like you have 2 groups with 4 people - you, your PM, your peer, your peer's PM. So you and your PM are from one group, and your peer and her PM are the other. Different group dynamics will necessitate different levels of formality. In some cases, I've been able to start a quick informal mail for this sort of stuff, since it has been a case where everyone is pretty comfortable with each other and the two groups had been harmonious for quite some time. In other, tenser situations, I've had to tred more lightly and provide out of band communcation to either each person, or each group to get the same thing done, just so that no one lost face in front of anyone else.

3 - In a really tense situation - My order of operations would be:

  • The peer - "Hey, do you see this issue too? Is it impacting you the same way?" and then develop a plan for it. If your peer isn't convinced this is an issue, then raising it with the peer's PM could go badly. If she is in the same boat, then maybe she'd like to talk to her PM while you talk to yours.

  • Your PM - whether or not your peer agrees, a private conversation with your PM is in order - asking for his help fixing muddy threads and asking for his take on how questions could be asked without thread interruption is a great approach. Assuming you get him on board, the two of you may then strategize about how to engage the other side. It's possible that if your peer isn't on board, your PM may be willing to tackle the other PM, depending on the nature of the relationship.

  • Lastly- the external PM. I don't mean to leave the poor guy out of the loop, but if you have a tense situation, this is the person with the farthest political distance from you. You and your PM and you and your peer have relationships built on shared goals or shared work, the external PM doesn't have the same tie to you. In an easy going situation, this would be no big deal, a group mail saying "hey we have a problem" would be totally fine, but in a tense situation, you may want to be aware that this guy will do better hearing it from either a peer (your PM) or someone in his own organization.

4 - Tense?? I'm using a vague word here and wanted to clarify. I've been in situations where there is either a contractual or organizatoinal reason for two groups to be at odds, or where groups that would otherwise be harmonious have had such rocky progress that they no longer trust each other. At that point, a lack of care in terms of communication can make a bad situation worse, while careful communication can rebuild trust. I can't really define tension any better, because every situation is unique.

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+1 for leading by example! –  pap Nov 15 '12 at 9:31

Generally when people do this to me, I send them an email asking them to put the issue in a separate email of it's own, so I won't lose track of that issue. Of course if it is large issue (basically anything that takes more than 15 minutes given how we track time), I request that they start a new project in our project mangement tracking system (which in our case also serves as a bug tracker, don't ask~!). It's amazing how many urgent, must-have issues go away when you tell people you won't work on it until they take the time to make it an official project.

As long as you ask them politely (and consistently) to put their issue in a separate email or bug tracking system or project managment system and that you state that is it because you will be better able to fix their issue, I have never had someone refuse. They know that they are hijacking after all. Consistency is key though, if they know they can get away with hijacking sometimes, they will continue to do it. If they know you will always ask them to submit something separate, they will eventually stop hijacking.

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I wouldn't be rude but at the same time no need to beat around the bush.

I would send a separate email to the offending parties stating your claim about getting 'off-topic' on certain emails. I would then include an example email where the offending parties injected off topic discussions to show you are not just ranting. I would then further support your case by stating that following these guidelines aids in productivity and reduces distractions from unrelated information or questions that should be better suited for separate emails. You can also state by making a separate email, the PM's questions will get answered more easily as they stand out and do not get lost in another email chain.

Finally, I would finish off the email stating to contact you or set up a meeting if they have any concerns, and that your goal is to increase productivity of email communications and reduce confusion.

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I think you're over thinking this a bit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply stating that a question is off topic and advising the author to follow up with/in a direct email to you.

If you do it consistently most clients will modify their behavior.

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Lists.

My favorite thing in the world, and when it comes to hijacked emails/threads lists wins big. Dealing with many conference calls, long email chains, etc etc. I've found that being able to moderate multiple parties at one time is one of the biggest skills you can possibly gain in the workplace, this is how I do it:

So another resource begins using your technical thread as a repository for their information gathering as well. When this happens I usually will step in and try to bring focus back on the subject that was originally in the email by asking a series of specific questions or information that needs to be identified by myself/department or putting the focus back on hand by specifically naming steps in which needs to be completed by the customer/yourself in order to get to the end result that both parties are looking for. Basically creating a list of tasks within the email itself so that the receiving party can see what tasks are at hand and when the email chain will come to a closing.

This method seems to work for me most of the time. It draws the customer/receiving party back into the topic without displacing any bad blood within the email itself.

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